$15 iTunes Gift Card for $10 – Groupon (Expired)

Pretty straightforward. $10 for a $15 iTunes Code from Groupon, limited quantities available, limit one per person. If you buy iTunes music, iPhone apps, Mac apps, or even TV shows or books in the App Store, save yourself five bucks. Code arrives within minutes, ready to apply to your account.

From 8/29-9/1 also get an extra 10% off Groupon Goods with coupon code LABOR10.

ShareBuilder Promotion Codes: Free Stock Trades (Updated 2014)

Added another new code. Here are some promotion codes for ShareBuilder, a discount brokerage now owned by Capital One. Real-time trades are now $6.95 and automated trades are $4. They give out codes for various promotions, and like coupon codes they often work in your account even if you weren’t given the code directly. Sometimes they don’t though, so have reasonable expectations.

Don’t have an account yet? Get a up to a $600 opening bonus depending on your initial deposit size, and then add the promo codes below afterward. You can often double-dip on codes if you have both a individual account and joint account. Custodial accounts for kids are also available.

How To Use
To enter the codes into your account, log in and go to the Accounts tab > Overview > Profile & Settings > Enter Promotion tab shown below.

In the marked box, enter a code. If it works, you should see a confirmation that says something like:

Thank you for referring ShareBuilder to your friends! Your 2 real-time trades have been credited to your account and are available to use immediately.

Most recently updated codes

  • SWEEP2014 (1 free real-time trade, hat tip to reader Hog)
  • PLACETRADE14 (1 free real-time trade)

Codes added within the last year or so (possible success)

BDAY14Y (hat tip reader Sean)
SWEEP600 (1 free real-time trade)
BDAY14AU (1 free automatic investment)
3AIP
3AIP*GEJZOH

[Read more…]

Baby Gear Reviews: Playards, Swings, and Baby Carriers (Part 1)

As a father of a 2-year-old and 2-month-old, I am now an unquestionable expert on all things parenting (that’s how it works, right?). Funny how parents can come off that way when in reality we live in constant fear of messing up our kids permanently.

Since a few readers have asked to write about baby-related things, here is a multi-part series on baby gear organized according to Amazon’s Baby Registry system. I realize this only applies to a certain subsection of readers so I’ll space the posts out. This is part 1; the entire series can be found with the Baby Gear tag here. The first three items on Amazon’s checklist are all items that will ideally occupy your baby while you do all the things you used to take for granted: eat, sleep, shower, use the restroom, and basic personal hygiene.

babystuff1

Playards / Travel Cribs / Playpens

babystuff_pnpThe most popular brand is the Graco Pack N Play, they are like the Kleenex of playards. We received one Pack N Play (PNP) as a gift, and another as a hand-me-down. We’ve also had to use several of them in various hotel rooms that we’ve stayed at. They are very easy to set up and take down once you get some practice. Since they are used as travel cribs, really they can function as everyday cribs until your kid physically grows out of it (manual says up to 30 lbs on the bottom, 15 lbs on the raised mesh level).

I had a fantasy of my kids happily playing in them while I did work on the computer, so I set one up in my home office. That did NOT happen. When they are crawling it serves as a handy pen to keep them safe while you’re doing something briefly. But our kid never spent more than 15 minutes (awake and happy) in one. These days it serves as a nap area or toy storage bin. The other PNP went to the grandparents’ house and mostly serves as a diaper changing table.

  • Verdict: We got the basic ~$70 Graco Pack n Play playard and it did come in handy. Basically a portable crib. I would say it is more of a convenience than a necessity (unless you use it as a primary crib). I did not miss the extra add-ons like nap stations, changing tables, rocking seats, etc.

Swings and Bouncers

babystuff_swingEvery parent seems to have a specific swing to recommend. That’s because when you find a swing that your kids like and will sleep for an hour or more in, you whisper a Hallelujah! (don’t wake the kid!) and weep for joy.

We got a couple different swings as gifts. Baby #1 didn’t like them. We tried some of our friends hand-me-downs. Didn’t like those either. We bought some used ones from the local kid exchange store. Nope. Our first kid was colicky and simply didn’t like swings. One day we were at Nordstroms and saw the $300 retail price Mamaroo. I couldn’t believe I was actually considering buying a swing with an LCD display and iPhone connectivity.

Baby #2 actually likes the Fisher-Price Snugabunny Swing because it swings side-to-side and not just front-to-back. Both babies actually preferred this Fisher-Price Rainforest Bouncer due to its vibration feature and colorful distractions. We ate a lot of dinners with that thing in the middle of the dining table.

  • Verdict: Swings are totally worth the money if your baby sleeps in them. Ours cost $140 but many run much less. Try one that swings side-to-side and front-to-back. Try a vibrating bouncer too.

Soft Baby Carriers

babystuff_becoThey all carry your baby on your body so that you have both hands free to do something else. It seems like many cultures from around the world have similar ways of carrying their babies, so this is definitely something to at least try.

Mrs. MMB and I both tried a few different ones on and ended up picking the Beco Gemini baby carrier (~$130). It was relatively easy to adjust and get in/out, felt sturdily built, and supported both facing-you and facing-forward positions at a wide range of weights. After using it through amusement parks, airports, and multiple washings, we found it very durable and it should last through multiple kids. Worth the extra cost in our experience.

We thought that both of us could us it, but in the end, it was a lot of trouble adjusting it for size between the both of us, and really she did most of the baby carrying. It worked well and I think both kids preferred the carrier to any car seat, stroller, or swing.

Many other brands are similar: Baby Bjorn, Ergo Baby, Infantino. The Moby Wrap ($40) looked very natural but was pretty difficult to get the baby comfortable despite many viewings of YouTube instructional videos. It’s just one big piece of fabric so I’m also not sure why it costs $40. Some people love it, however. Our friends gave us a Mei Tai Carrier ($25) which is more like a Beco/Bjorn but all cloth without plastic clips. I now use it myself to hold the baby around the house. I think the Mei Tai is a good budget version of a Beco-style carrier, although it is more convenient to have the click-in buckles than to tie knots every time.

  • Verdict: If you are cool with carrying your baby on your body, definitely get one. Starts at just $25. Mrs. MMB uses her baby carrier all the time when out shopping or running errands. Both of our kids napped in them regularly.

Effect of Student Loan Debt on Homeownership Rate

Multiple sources are suggesting that increasing student loan debt levels will have a significant impact on future housing prices because people will delay their home purchases (or put them off entirely). Although that seems like a reasonable assumption, I haven’t actually seen any hard data on it.

In a recent Vanguard research paper titled No bubble to burst: U.S. student debt is not housing [pdf], they took data from the Federal Reserve’s 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances and U.S. Census Bureau and found that:

Although financing a bachelor’s degree with student debt decreases the likelihood of a typical 30-year-old college graduate purchasing a home by –1.7%, obtaining that degree also increases the likelihood of purchasing a home by 10.8%, relative to not attending college at all.

vanguard_home

In the end, the conclusion seems to still be consistent with other findings. Getting that college degree is still “worth it” financially, even with the accompanying debt, at least on average. Your income is higher, you’re less likely to be unemployed, and you are more likely to own a home.

vanguard_home2

I suppose the primary thing to avoid is to not be above average on the debt. If you have to take on $120,000+ of debt just to get a 4-year degree, you’re probably going to the wrong school anyway. If the school really wanted you, they’d offer you a better aid package with grants and/or tuition waivers.

Bank of America Better Balance Rewards Card Review

bofabbrA couple of readers have asked me about the BankAmericard Better Balance Rewards credit card. It definitely has a unique rewards structure

  • Earn a $25 cash reward for each calendar quarter in which all of your monthly payments are received on or before the due date and are more than the minimum payment due. Your account must remain open and you must have a payment due in each of the monthly cycles of the calendar quarter to be eligible for the quarterly cash reward; a zero balance or a credit balance does not qualify.
  • Earn an additional $5 cash reward per quarter if you have a Bank of America checking or savings account.
  • Cash back is automatically credited to your card balance, unless otherwise directed into your BofA bank account.
  • No annual fee.

The draw is that you could charge just $5 to the card every month, wait for the statement to close, and then pay off that $5 every month, and end up with $100 a year in rewards (or $120 a year with BofA account). It would take $5,000 of total purchases at a theoretical 2% cashback rate to get to $100 in rewards.

The first catch is that you need to maintain this every single month. If you skip just one month and have a zero balance, or somehow a refund has you end up with a negative balance, or you don’t pay the minimum due on time, then you forfeit the entire $25 for that quarter. Remember that by default the $25 reward is applied to your credit card balance, so even that could put you negative in a month. You have to pay attention to this card.

The second catch is that there is no other rewards structure, not even a flat 1% cash back. There is no incentive to put any significant purchases on this card, as you won’t get any additional cash back.

In the end, this card would work best for:

  1. People who naturally charge very little on their cards, but at least something every month. Maybe you’ll miss out on a quarter here and there, but with small total purchase amounts it would still be more than you’d get from a normal rewards card.
  2. Detail-oriented folks who are willing to jump through the hoops to get that $100 to $120 per year by charging small amounts and paying them off every month. (Then put all your other charges on a 1%/5% or flat 2% cashback card or other better card.) You could try and automate this somehow with a scheduled $5 monthly charitable contribution, put Netflix bill on auto-pay, or something similar. I can’t recall if BofA lets you also automate the payment.

I think the best play here is to try and convert an existing Bank of America credit card that you don’t use anymore (cash out the rewards completely first!). Ideally you’ll get access to the benefits without an additional credit check. Otherwise, in the current environment, it is quite easy to get $500 or more value upfront out of a new credit card application. A credit pull is valuable and I’d rather have a big bonus now instead of having to jump through hoops for 4-5 years. If/when the bonuses start to drop, then this card would start to look better.

New Phased Retirement Program Details For Federal Workers

opmI’m always interested in non-traditional retirement stories, and saw that the US government just released their final regulations on Phased Retirement for federal workers. Phased retirement in general refers to transitioning from full-time to part-time work for a period of time before a traditional full retirement.

Participants will be able to start working half-time while collecting half of the pension they would get if they were to fully retire at that date. Then, when they fully retire, they’ll get the other half of their pension, adjusted for the additional work they did while being part-time. At least that’s my version of their lengthy explanation:

At entry into Phased Retirement, the employee’s annuity will be completed as if fully retired and then divided by two. That annuity would be paid while the individual worked a half time schedule receiving half pay. […] When the Phased Retiree fully retires, there will be a computation of the annuity that would be payable if the employee had been employed full time and then divided by two prior to adjustment for survivor benefits. That amount would then be added to the original Phased Retirement Annuity, and that combined amount would then provide the basis for survivor annuity adjustment and benefits.

Participants will also get to keep their health and dental insurance, access to Thrift Savings Plan, and many other benefits. Fedweek has created a Federal Employee’s Guide to Phased Retirement [pdf], which is a lot easier to read than the actual regulations.

According to this Reuters article, the program should both save money and retain talent:

For the government, the program is expected to be a money saver. The Congressional Budget Office estimated recently that 1,000 employees might take advantage of phased retirement annually, and would continue work for three years. That would cut required contributions to the government’s pension system by $427 million from 2013 to 2022, and boost worker contributions by $24 million.

But phased retirement also will help the government retain talent and expertise at a time when the “brain drain” from an aging workforce is a major concern. About 600,000 people, or 31 percent of the federal civilian workforce, will be eligible for retirement by September 2017, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Phased retirees will be required to spend at least 20 percent of their time mentoring younger employees.

Employess under the legacy Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) will be eligible for phased retirement at age 55 with 30 years of service, or at 60 with 20 years of service. Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) employees must be age 60 with 20 years of service, or have 30 years of service and have reached their minimum retirement-eligible age. Agencies can send their Phased Retirement applications to OPM for processing starting November 6, 2014.

I think this is a neat idea and it looks like there will be strong interest. I hope the idea spreads. Even if your employer doesn’t offer an official policy on phased retirement, I know of several folks who have made their own custom arrangements.

Why Didn’t Technology Create a 4-Hour Workday?

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier over time, but what is the reality? We may not spend all day hunting and gathering anymore, but we still work similar hours to our great-grandparents. From the paper A Century of Work and Leisure [pdf] published in the American Economic Journal:

We find that hours of work for prime age individuals are essentially unchanged, with the rise in women’s hours fully compensating for the decline in men’s hours. […] Overall, per capita leisure and average annual lifetime leisure increased by only four or five hours per week during the last 100 years.

The following video by CGP Grey called Humans Need Not Apply methodically describes how robotic automation will soon make an additional chunk of people unemployable.

Horses aren’t unemployed now because they got lazy as a species, they’re unemployable. There’s little work a horse can do that do that pays for its housing and hay. And many bright, perfectly capable humans will find themselves the new horse: unemployable through no fault of their own.

If robots are doing all the work, shouldn’t that mean that the workers should be able to get by working less? Some people thought so. The famous economist John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1930 that “by 2030 he expected a system of almost total “technological unemployment” in which we’d need to work as few as 15 hours a week, and that mostly just to avoid losing our minds from all the leisure.”

That is taken from the Vice.com article Who Stole the 4-Hour Workday? (warning: other parts of this site may be considered NSFW), which discusses how the dream of a shortened workweek fell apart:

A new American dream has gradually replaced the old one. Instead of leisure, or thrift, consumption has become a patriotic duty. Corporations can justify anything—from environmental destruction to prison construction—for the sake of inventing more work to do. A liberal arts education, originally meant to prepare people to use their free time wisely, has been repackaged as an expensive and inefficient job-training program. We have stopped imagining, as Keynes thought it so reasonable to do, that our grandchildren might have it easier than ourselves. We hope that they’ll have jobs, maybe even jobs that they like.

The new dream of overwork has taken hold with remarkable tenacity. Hardly anyone talks about expecting or even deserving shorter workdays anymore; the best we can hope for is the perfect job, one that also happens to be our passion. In the dogged, lonely pursuit of it, we don’t bother organizing with our co-workers. We’re made to think so badly of ourselves as to assume that if we had more free time, we’d squander it.

The Vice.com article focuses on the idea that workers should organize and fight for their share of the benefits.

Instead, we see that the benefits of any technological advancement or increase in productivity has predominantly gone to the owning class (business owners, content owners, and corporate executives) as opposed to the working class. A thick, NYT bestselling economics book posits that when the rate of return on capital is greater than the rate of economic growth, the result is wealth inequality.

I certainly don’t know how this will play out. Will robots cause mass unemployment? Will we all have 20-hour workweeks with no pay cut? In the meantime, as an individual its seems wise to keep converting my excess work energy into ownership of assets. If all you do is work, get paid, and spend it all, then you may be stuck in the rat race indefinitely. A way out is to save a portion and buy some assets. Businesses, real estate, shares of common stocks. Or start your own business and/or create some assets.

How Reliable Is The Income Stream From Dividend Stocks?

If you’re trying to achieve early retirement, that means you have less time for compound interest and more time living off your investments. As a result, many early retirement investors like to own income-oriented investments like rental properties or dividend stocks. People used to own bonds and also be happy with that income when the interest rates were well above the inflation rate, but right now that is not the case.

So a good question is – How reliable is the income stream from dividend stocks? Joseph G. Paul of the AllianceBerstein blog tried to address this issues a couple different ways. First, he pointed out the dividend income from the S&P 500 went up in 39 out of the last 46 years. When it did drop, the largest single year drop was 20% from 2008 to 2009.

Now imagine that own the S&P 500 index or a High Divided Yield index (top 1/3 of S&P 500 by dividend yield) and simply spend the dividend income every year, but don’t sell any shares. 10 years later, would you have the same amount of money that you started with? (That’s what would happen with a 10-year bond.) Here are the results:

abdividends

In fact, in 87% of 10-year periods that we surveyed, investors in equities got their money back receiving, on average, more than twice as much (Display) from a $100 investment. The high-dividend-yield portfolio was even more stable than the market as a whole, only failing to recover the initial investment in one out of 38 10-year periods.

The AB article makes a case for the suitability of a diversified basket of dividend stocks for long-term investors that want to spend the income every year without selling shares, with the warning that they also need the ability to ignore share price fluctuations and avoid selling in a down market.

On the other hand, financial author William Bernstein wrote in his book The Ages of the Investor that you can only treat 50% of your dividend income as absolutely reliable. His reasoning, at least as quoted from the book:

If you counted on your stock holdings to see you through retirement, you’re likely to be seriously disappointed. Yet, there is a small part of the equity portfolio that can be considered in the funding of retirement: the “safe dividend flow” from stock holdings. Although the value of stocks can fluctuate wildly, their stream of income is much more stable. At no point in the history of the U.S.stock market has its real dividend stream fallen by more than half, even during the Great Depression. During the most recent financial crisis, for example, although stock prices fell by more than 50%, dividends also dropped, but by only 23% from their peak, and only temporarily.

Early Retirement Lesson #3: Home-Buying and Mortgage Advice

housemoneyHere’s another installment of what I would tell my kids about pursuing financial freedom (if they weren’t still in diapers). Previous topics have included the importance of savings rate and whether to focus on earning more or spending less. This time, I wanted to talk about buying a home and mortgages.

Should you buy or rent? Now, there are many buy vs. rent calculators. Here is the best one in my opinion. But as they say garbage in, garbage out, so be careful. Your answer will strongly depend on unpredictable things like future investment performance and/or home price appreciation. In general, the longer you plan on staying in a geographical location (say at least 5-7 years), the better it is to buy your own place. But if you are the nomadic type and want to travel the world, then renting can work out to be much better. In my experience, buying a house often ends up a lifestyle-based decision and not just about the numbers.

If you decide to buy, my opinion is that you should adjust your mortgage size and term to coincide with the date of retirement. I define retirement as when your expenses are exceeded by your non-work income like pensions, Social Security, annuity payments, stock dividends, rental income, or other investment income. Example scenarios:

  • If you love your job and plan on working for the next 30+ years, then go ahead and get a 30 year mortgage. Maybe you have a job that you could work part-time or isn’t very stressful. In this case you have lots of human capital and a long stream of future work income. Take on the 4% interest rate fixed for 30 years, and over time your salary will rise with inflation while your payment stays the same. Be sure to buy a house that you can afford while still investing for retirement. If anything, you could do a DIY biweekly payment plan and pay off that 30-year mortgage in under 24 years.
  • If you have the early retirement bug and want to retire in 15 years, then you should find a home that you can afford with a 15-year mortgage. The interest rate will be lower and as long as you can swing the payments in the beginning, you’ll quickly get used to it. The hard part is to find an affordable home with those higher monthly payments. The hardest part is to be satisfied with it as you’ll have the option and expectation from others to spend more. This is why I think the 15-year mortgage is a powerful tool for aspiring early retirees. It forces you to commit to a long-term lifestyle that fits your goals. Buy a house at age 25, and you’ll be done by 40.
  • Let’s say you receive a monetary windfall (inheritance, huge raise, IPO) and all of a sudden an early retirement is on the table. I wouldn’t necessarily pay off the mortgage completely if you aren’t ready to retire yet. You’ll want to balance the opportunity to invest in potentially higher-returning investments (stock mutual funds, dividend-paying stocks, other real estate) with pursuing the benefits of having a fully-owned house (less stress, less leverage, lower required monthly expenses). My solution would be to pay enough of the mortgage down such that with your usual monthly payments it advances your mortgage payoff date to match your retirement date. If you won the lottery and that date is tomorrow, then yes pay it all off!

One of my reasons for matching mortgage payoff with retirement date is psychological. When you are working, your paycheck is the same every month. This matches well with a fixed mortgage payment. But investment income is often variable. If the tenant in your investment property decides to squat and you have to spend months going through eviction proceedings, your rental income may drop to zero for a while. Many experts now recommend a dynamic withdrawal strategy from your investment portfolio, which would also result in a variable income. But mortgages are like an alligator. You must feed it; if you don’t then it eats you. Other expenses like travel and dining out, those can be adjusted. So I don’t like the idea of having a mortgage in retirement, especially if it is a large percentage of your overall expenses.

However, paying off the mortgage too early can also cause regret if the stock market is rising while you’re piling money into a 4% mortgage. If you are still in the accumulation phase, at times like now you’ll be reminded that you could be investing your paycheck in the market generating higher returns. But if you’re retired, that meant your nest egg was already big enough. If the market goes up, your next egg goes up and you are happier. If the market drops, hey, you already have a paid-off house. So that is why I don’t recommend paying off the mortgage too early, either.

Finally, early retirement with a paid-off house is great because lower expenses means smaller withdrawals from your portfolio, which also means a lower overall tax rate. In fact, with a mix of Traditional and Roth IRAs, we’ve seen that a couple could withdraw over $50,000 a year and still pay zero taxes on retirement. A lower income can also help you qualify for things like health insurance subsidies.

Short version to my kids: If you want to retire early and don’t move around much, buy a modest home where you can afford a 15-year mortgage payment and save at least 25% of your income. If your lifestyle entails lots of moving around, rent and save 50% of your income.

(Related: Pay Off Mortgage Early vs. Save More For Retirement? Digging Deep Into The Details)

The Big Flavor Grill Cookbook: No Marinade, No Hassle Recipes (Book Review)

bigflavorbookAnother thing I’ve been getting into this summer is grilling over 100% natural hardwood charcoal. My gateway drug was Alton Brown’s Steak on Coals recipe. The smell and flavor brings me back to my childhood, even though technically that was a pile of Kingsford with tons of lighter fluid…

So I agreed to a free review copy of a new cookbook called The Big-Flavor Grill: No-Marinade, No-Hassle Recipes, written by chef Chris Schlesinger and Cook’s Illustrated executive editor John Willoughby.

The basic premise of this book is to save you time and energy by avoiding marinades, brines, or complicated sauces. Instead, while your grill is heating up you smear on a pre-rub, and after the food is cooked you add on a flavorful sauce. You do all the prep in the 30 minutes or so that it takes your charcoal to heat up (preferably with a cheap chimney starter to avoid lighter fluid). Here are some sample recipe names, unfortunately I couldn’t find a sample full recipe online:

  • Five-Spice Steak Tips with Grilled Pineapple and Sweet-Sour Sauce
  • Coriander-Crusted Pork Skewers with Maple-Mustard Barbecue Sauce
  • Chicken Breasts with Maple-Soy Glaze and Peanut-Ginger Relish
  • Spicy Curry-Rubbed Lamb Kebabs with Grilled Peaches
  • Cumin Seed–Crusted Shrimp with Charred Corn Vinaigrette
  • Fish Steaks with Sriracha-Basil Butter

Did the pre-rub + sauce work? Well, yes and no. I didn’t have to marinate or brine. The food tasted good. Can some citrus and herbs brighten things up easily in a pinch? Yes. But I still had to make a special trip to the store to get all the ingredients for my exotic sauces, so that took time. Marinating is basically just doing the same amount of work ahead of time and letting it sit there overnight. Yes, planning ahead is harder but so is shopping for all those ingredients. Is that extra convenience worth the decrease in taste, tenderness, or juiciness from no marinating or brining? I’m not sure.

I found the true benefit of this book is that it reminded me that simple grilled food is great all by itself. For every section, they have something called “Super-Basic” XXX, where XXX is everything from steak to shrimp to corn to cherry tomatoes. And you know what? I liked the grilled shrimp straight-up off the grill more than the shrimp plus ginger/lime/sesame sauce because the sauce made everything a bit soggy. Grilled blistered tomatoes, grilled mushrooms, grilled asparagus… all great with just some olive oil and salt. Grilled peaches, grilled avocados, smokey and awesome right off the grill. I guess I’m a simple guy.

The cookbook itself looks great in hardcover, with good photography inside and the pages are thick and feel high quality. It would make a good gift for the busy grilling enthusiast. I don’t think it’ll be a timeless classic, but I will definitely keep this book around for the Super Basic XXX recipes to provide inspiration on Friday nights when I am short on time and want to cook outdoors.

In the end, just grill baby! It feels special but costs very little extra. I use a simple $30 Weber Smokey Joe grill and real charcoal can be surprisingly cheap too. After reading Omnivore’s Dilemmna by Pollan I think cooking from scratch at home is overall better for both my wallet and health.

I received a review copy of this book for free from Blogging for Books. If you are a blogger, check them out for some free review books in your niche.

Costco Meal Planner Service: 20 Family Dinners For $150

I know it’s still summer, but with two kids under two I’ve been trying to cook extra on the weekends and coast on the weekdays. This past weekend I made beef stew and pulled pork sandwiches in the slow cooker, and they turned out pretty good. Today I found 5dollardinners.com (from my wife’s Pinterest or Facebook), which shows you how to make 20 slow cooker meals for $150 using Costco’s bulk food packages (this version is gluten-free too).

5dollardinners

Basically, you go to Costco and buy exactly what is on the provided shopping list (6 pack of chicken breasts, 15 lb bag of potatoes, massive tub of BBQ sauce, etc) and then chop and separate all the ingredients into 20 separate freezer bags. When you need an easy cheap meal, pop a bag into your slow cooker in the morning and you’ll have dinner ready by the time you’re done with work. You’ll need a slow cooker with a timer if you don’t work from home. You can piece together all the info on the site for free, or for $5 you get some nicely organized instructions and even bag labels.

That makes this site a cool entrepreneurial example as well. Costco is already a great place for people who don’t want to shop for extreme bargains, they just want a decent deal with no hassle. Why not extend the idea to meal planning. The creator definitely put in work to save you time, so why not compensate her for it? They also have two other Costco meal plans that are not 100% slow-cooker specific.

With every ingredient having to go into more than one recipe, you’d worry about too many similar meals but the variety of the recipes actually looks pretty good. I haven’t actually cooked any of them myself, however. If I was really motivated I would try and make something similar for my own personal tastes.

Amazon Local Register: 1.75% Credit Card Processing Fee

Amazon just announced Local Register, which allows small businesses to accept credit cards on their smartphone or tablet much like Square, Paypal, etc. The special thing is their initial promotional rate of 1.75% until the end of 2015 if you sign up by October 31st, 2014. Their standard rate is 2.5%. Square’s standard rate is 2.75%, PayPal is 2.7%. So this is a decent savings of at least 30% on your credit card processing fees. No minimum amounts or monthly fees. Via NYT Bits.

To swipe cards, you have to buy the dongle for $10 with free 2-day shipping, but it also includes $10 in free processing fees. They just don’t want people ordering it and leaving it in their desk drawer (like I did with my Square reader). The lower rates apply to swiped cards only, manually entered numbers cost 2.75%. Compatible with iPhone 4 and newer, Samsung Galaxy S3 and newer, Kindle Fire HD and newer, and all iPads.

I’ve been seeing more Square-type readers at farmer’s markets and smaller retail kiosks. If you have higher volume, you may get a better deal via Costco or other traditional merchant accounts. Individuals may speculate about the churning of cashback or rewards cards through this reader, but in my opinion it has been tried before and is not worth the hassle.